Outlier School Visits
Last spring, A+ Colorado released our report Outliers that dived into district data across Colorado to see where districts are succeeding and thriving with students of all backgrounds. Coming out of the report, A+ was curious about the next set of questions: What is making these districts do better than their peers? What can they teach us and other districts about increasing performance? To answer these questions, we reached out to a dozen districts that were Outliers and set up meetings with district leaders and their board. These visits are intended to highlight these Outlier districts and look under the hood at their success stories and what is working for their students.
A+ Visits the Outliers: Cañon City
Our first leg of the tour took us to visit Cañon City. About 45 minutes southwest of Colorado Springs, nestled right next to the Royal Gorge, Cañon City is in Fremont County. The major industry is corrections, with seven unique prisons within the county. An older, whiter and mostly lower-income community, Cañon City represents a smaller district that is showing big gains in a few areas. We had a chance to sit down with their Assistant Superintendent of Academics, Adam Hartman and learn about what they were doing. We learned that they are doing the important, hard data-driven work of instructional improvements and investments at the school level in technology. We also learned about the major investments they’ve made in culture and core values, shared coherence around problems and how to approach issues in a student’s first way. Later that night (after a quick trip to the Royal Gorge) A+ presented our data to their board. It was an opportunity to celebrate their progress and to see where they can still improve. It was a powerful learning experience and we are looking forward to future district meetings. Congratulations to Cañon City educators, principals, board and district leaders for creating conditions for change and for students.
A+ Visits the Outliers: Lake County
At the end of October, A+ Colorado had our second visit to an Outliers school district when we traveled up to Leadville to meet with the great folks in Lake County. Superintendent Wendy Wyman and Chief Operating Officer Kate Bartlett asked us to both present to their board and to a weekly community meeting of groups across Lake County. In both of the presentations, we had the opportunity to present where Lake County showed up on the Outlier analysis. The data showed tremendous progress and opportunity to grow. After both presentations, we spent time discussing and learning about where they feel they have succeeded and where they have been challenged. A major component we heard was about the need to input foundations like strong hiring practices and retention plans for teachers, utilizing an outside group to bring in perspective on how to rebuild their talent pipeline. Additionally, they spoke on the need to manage the pace of change for their staff and their schools. They wanted to see progress and improvement while ensuring folks were able to adjust to the shifting culture. They also spoke up about their future plans to increase partnership between educators and families, building new trust and connection with their community. These visits continue to be beneficial as we learn more from school districts who are beating the odds across the state.
A+ Visits the Outliers: Eaton
Located just north of Greely on Highway 85, Eaton School District RE-2 serves approximately 1900 students in five schools. Primarily a community with strong agriculture roots, the district is growing gradually as NE Colorado, and nearby cities Greeley and Fort Collins continue to expand. In our 2018 Outliers report, Eaton School district popped as a district outperforming the state in results for kids.
Specifically, from 2015 to 2017, Eaton School District increased already relatively high rates of students meeting or exceeding grade level expectations in elementary English Language Arts to 57%, well above the statewide proficiency rate.
In elementary Math, Eaton is an exemplar for students meeting or exceeding expectations at a much higher rate than students in similar districts across the state with the largest improvement, an 18 percentage point advancement.
In our visit to Eaton to learn more about their success, A+ was invited to sit in on the bi-weekly meeting that brings together administrators from all five schools as well as the Superintendent and district staff. We learned about a culture of accountability and alignment that stretched from kindergarten classrooms all the way through 12th grade. Teachers, administrators, the Superintendent, and the School Board all commit themselves to setting individual academic achievement targets for each and every student- a practice that has existed in the district long before requirements from the state. In addition to the careful attention paid to each student’s academic success, the district has also set high expectations for both student and family engagement. One of the seven goals the School Board set for the district this year was:
The percent of students engaged in extracurricular, school-sponsored activities will be 95% at EHS and 85% at EMS. 95% of the parents/guardians in the elementary schools will be engaged in school-sponsored activities.
This deep commitment to understanding not just how students are performing academically, but to make sure that they and their families are meaningfully engaged in the school community are no doubt a key component to the district’s success.
The district also stressed that their data systems aren’t fancy or expensive- just Excel spreadsheets and knowledgeable and committed staff that deeply value understanding how each student is doing- a model that can be replicated in any district across the state.
Eaton has also leveraged partnerships with local service clubs, nearby Poudre Learning Center, University of Northern Colorado and CSU, and informal learning opportunities with surrounding districts and administrators from schools in the Patriot League sports conference.
When asked about the number one gripe with state level education requirements, the UIP process was cited as the least helpful and most time consuming. For a district that clearly has a strong culture of accountability, perhaps the state could learn from Eaton and explore better ways to ensure that all kids have access to excellent and continuously improving schools.